Ronaldo's rape charges are going away, but his damaged legacy isn't

Even if Cristiano Ronaldo won’t stand trial in Las Vegas on sexual assault charges after prosecutors there announced Monday that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt, the global icon won’t walk away from this sordid affair unscathed.

The decision, following an investigation into a decade-old rape accusation, represents a clear win for the 34-year-old Portuguese striker. Make no mistake about that. But the statement issued by the Clark County district attorney’s office also fell short of exonerating Ronaldo, and it doesn’t change the fact that this was a serious, credible claim brought by former model Kathryn Mayorga, who reported the incident to police immediately and, despite not naming Ronaldo at the time, was paid $375,000 by the player to keep quiet about what took place in a suite in the Palms Casino Resort in the summer of 2009.

A civil case is still forthcoming. And in the court of public opinion, the damage to Ronaldo’s near-pristine reputation is in many ways irreparable. At the very least, his love affair with the United States is probably over for good.

Ronaldo remains one of the most revered athletes alive. His fans still number in the tens of millions. But major sponsors like sportswear giant Nike — who have a lifetime deal with Ronaldo reportedly worth up to a $1 billion — and video game maker EA Sports both expressed dismay when the allegations became public last fall. Other companies might be wary of attaching their brands to the Juventus star going forward, especially after the way the last year played out.

ALLIANZ STADIUM, TORINO, ITALY - 2019/04/16: Cristiano Ronaldo of Juventus FC  during the UEFA Champions League quarter final second leg football match between Juventus Fc and Afc Ajax .    Afc Ajax wins 2-1 over Juventus Fc. (Photo by Marco Canoniero/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Cristiano Ronaldo is not unscathed despite the fact he won't be charged with rape. (Getty)

It’s true that Ronaldo denied the claims from the start. But this is the second rape he has been accused of — in 2005, while playing for Manchester United, Ronaldo was arrested after a woman said he assaulted her in a London hotel; a lack of evidence also prevented that case from proceeding — and many regarded his initial response to this latest matter as aloof and unconvincing.

It didn’t help him that German magazine Der Spiegel published what it claimed was a signed settlement agreement between Mayorga and Ronaldo, including correspondence between the player and his lawyers in which Ronaldo appeared to admit Mayorga had said “‘no’ and ‘stop’ several times.”

In March, ESPN reported the lengths to which Ronaldo’s handlers went to prevent him from being physically served the civil suit. Later that month, the New York Times revealed that Juve did not schedule International Champions Cup matches in the United States this summer specifically because of fears that Ronaldo could potentially be detained by authorities.

None of this covers the former Real Madrid star in glory. For years, it was widely assumed that Ronaldo would finish his sterling career in Major League Soccer, where he’d succeed the likes of David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic as the face of the league. Ronaldo’s global brand rivals Beckham’s; the commercial opportunities in the U.S. seemed endless, not least as the potential headliner for Beckham’s new expansion club in Miami. It’s a lot harder to see that happening now.

Another sports giant, Kobe Bryant, was 23 when he was charged with sexually assaulting a hotel employee in 2003. That case was also later dropped; the witness refused to cooperate and it was eventually settled out of court. Yet Bryant’s squeaky clean image was forever tarnished. McDonald’s dropped him as a pitchman. Other sponsors bolted, too. Nothing, not switching his jersey number from 8 to 24, not leading the Los Angeles Lakers to two more NBA titles or winning an Olympic gold medal for his country before he retired in 2016, ever fully restored it.

Like Bryant, Cristiano Ronaldo will go down as one of the greatest players to ever play his sport. But smashing success on the field of play doesn’t always result in bulletproof popularity off of it. Being a fan of someone, no matter how gifted, is optional. Ronaldo turns 35 in February. He doesn’t have much time left to change the narrative, to create the highlights that might eventually make people stop wondering what really happened that night in Las Vegas. In the #MeToo era, and given all we know about the circumstances around this case, getting the benefit of the doubt from a large percentage of the population might prove impossible.

This is part of Ronaldo’s legacy now. It’s not going away. Monday’s news doesn’t change that at all.

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